We, the writers, come up with imaginary worlds of the future. We also weave intricate plots which take place in ancient Rome or in the silk-clad Victorian England. We describe the bloody battlefields of the US Civil War and the chaos of the French Revolution. Heads roll and limbs must be amputated.
Each period in history offers a fascinating set of dresses, customs, and geographical variation. Google Maps is an excellent tool if you write about a faraway land, but you need a time machine to visit the battle of Gaines’ Mill.
To set your novel in The US Civil War, you must master the way of speech during the era and you must know how to reload the weaponry and… The list is long. When you dip into the deep well of history, a new danger arises. You’ll be tempted to infodump because you’ve become quite the expert! You know each footstep the famous general took in the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but:
“The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone, and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.”
The secret is the delicate balance between solid facts and skillful fiction. The right amount of authenticity depends on the genre and the reader. You might have to rewrite multiple times to get into fabulous world-building.
Choose your battle
The readers who are inclined to buy your book are interested in the:
- Or plot of your book.
Or they just like the cover image, or find out about you from Amazon or blogs or…
Chances are that your reader knows something about the world of your book. If the reader notices that you got the weapons or the family background of the hero wrong, you lose their trust.
That’s the sound your book makes when it hits the floor and shall never be picked up again.
The secret is choosing your battles. Master the rules and you can bend them. There’s no harm in removing historical details as you go along and decide that each bit isn’t necessary for the drama. But don’t make a mistake with the essential stuff! Your hero/heroine should be an exceptional character, but relatable.
For example, a Victorian woman’s place was in the home: being a well-behaved mistress of the house and giving birth to babies- preferably burly sons. Dracula is a British-American television series, a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The character of Mina is cast as a doctor. The education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era and the source of joking. It wasn’t impossible though. See, research pays. A female doctor isn’t against the rules of Victorian worldbuilding, but a pioneer whose profession gives you a chance to write conflict.
The Ideal Reader
Surely you have imagined him or her: the person who enjoys your book so much that she tells all her friends about you? I’m going to use simple stereotypes now. Don’t be offended.
If your ideal reader is a single woman in her twenties; she lives in the big city and wolfs down romantic & historical literature, chances are that she expects romance and adventure when she picks up your book. This buyer is willing to accept that you bend the borders of social class. The charming baron blazing down the hillside riding his white stallion to grab the peasant girl is plausible if you’re within the genre expectations. If the ideal reader is a fifty-something naval veteran, you’d better get the military details of the battle of Potomac right.
It’s entirely possible that your audience ranges from ages 20 to 65 and represents both female and male readers, but something binds together the people who would enjoy your book: the features of the ideal reader connect them.
The Dust of History
Chances are that you hated the dry dust of history in school. Let go of that thought. Finding out about history will cause your writing to soar with new ideas. You don’t have to come up with everything: the information is already there for you to grab.
“If you’re writing non-fiction, research will most likely be the basis of your book. For fiction, it can provide ideas on which to build your characters and plot.”
I like to base my characters, especially the villain, on somebody who existed. Historical figures are great baselines for fictional characters. Reading a memoir will give you insight into the thought models, religions and aspirations which people had during that era.
“Books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy
Read other people’s books. Find out how they’ve come up with the right balance between fact and fiction.
But I Write About The Future
You might think that you’re safe from researching history because your setting is imaginary and the plot takes place in the future.
The fictional future of mankind is:
- The gleaming steel world manned by people dressed in sterile white. Here, the most deadly weapon is science.
- Or the grim post-apocalyptic desert with wandering tribes and murderous warlords. Here, the most deadly weapon in the hand of the new caveman is an old rifle or an ax.
Both of them have their foundation in historical eras. When the race to the moon was on during the Cold War, writers grabbed the theme of alien invasions and space wars. When the threat of the nuclear holocaust became evident to the masses, the writers offered visions of radiation-ridden wastelands roamed by a handful of smart and resilient survivors. If I were to write the latter version, I’d study the dark Middle Ages.
Science Fiction experienced a boom during the decades of rebuilding and technological optimism after WWII. We’d fill Mars with colonies and abandon the earth before the doomsday clock ticked into 2000 AD. Of course, we didn’t. We stayed pretty much the same but we enjoy 3D movies depicting that very theme!
History is inevitably linked to the future.
The reader will find the future more plausible when it derives from the politics of today
We relate to something we witness with our own eyes. Fears of today form the future monsters. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote the book in 1985, but the misogynistic Gilead state is plausible to us because of the features in US politics.
To envision the worst case scenario is human nature.
We littered the earth with trash and we invented digital devices, but humanity remained the same. We feel empathy for the future character who could be us.
Alternate History Fiction
A whole subdivision of dystopian literature is Alternate History. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is a brilliant example. C. J . Sansom represents the new wave of alternate history fiction with his Dominion (one of my favorite books).
The plots of C. J. Sansom’s other novels take place during Tudor times. Sansom is a researcher of history and his books are excellent entertainment.
Even if you don’t want to be the dusty hermit, Google a few search terms. Read, read and read. The strange world of your next book starts to grow and breathe around you. Once, there was a time when writers had to drag themselves to the library to study. Today, we just open a laptop or a mobile phone. Who said that humanity couldn’t evolve?
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